Stage set for Eden Park epic

RYAN VREDE with the assistance of ruckingoodstats.com analyses the strengths and weaknesses of New Zealand and Australia ahead of their World Cup semi-final clash.

Australia undoubtedly come into the match as underdogs, having lost eight of their last 10 Tests against the Blacks, and having not won at this venue in 10 attempts, dating back to 6 September 1986.

They have furiously attempted to deflect the pressure onto the Blacks, claiming that the match is theirs to lose. That is a fallacy. With the hosts shorn of their fulcrum Dan Carter and with the talismanic Richie McCaw’s influence compromised by an injury, the youthful Wallabies will privately be aware that the Blacks are vulnerable in a way they haven’t been in some time.

Graham Henry’s charges, piloted by young Aaron Cruden, carry the weight of expectation that needs to be experienced to be fully comprehended. There is the distinct sense of trepidation among the Kiwis, evident in their media coverage and, more pertinently, in the discussions in their coffee shops and pubs.

A nation is holding its breath. The result will determine which of the anti-depressant or beer markets see a dramatic spike in sales.

Time, possession and territory

New Zealand have bossed possession in the first half in their games at the tournament and dominated territory in both halves. Only South Africa had been better in this regard. Expect them to continue this trend against the Wallabies, who defended desperately and heroically for the bulk of the contest against the Springboks last week.

Both sides rank highly for ball-in-play time, and both have thrived when allowed to play ‘fast’. Ireland built their pool-phase victory on stifling Australia’s ability to do this, while the Blacks haven’t really been tested in this regard. In 2011 New Zealand has lost matches to Australia (Brisbane) and South Africa (Port Elizabeth) when not allowed to play as quickly as they would have liked.

Points

The Blacks and Wallabies are ranked first and second respectively in terms of the average number of tries they’ve scored at the showpiece.

The Wallabies have achieved their try-scoring success playing through an average of 2.9 phases per match and 67 rucks per game (their 2011 average is 84), with New Zealand at 3.1 and 88.

Both have been potent in their opponents’ 22m, the Blacks averaging nine linebreaks in that zone, one more than the visitors. Richie’s Rockets are, however, better equipped to inflict damage from further out, averaging 10 more broken tackles a game between halfway and the opposition’s 22m.

However, in a game that is certain to be tight, the more interestingly study is the accuracy of the goalkickers. Piri Weepu has been an asset, kicking 11/12. Beyond him there is good cover, with Cruden kicking at 79 % (84/106 ) in 2011, and Stephen Donald at 73% (64/88). Wallabies kicker James O’Connor has banked 76% (16 from 21) of his attempts, the most notable of those the penalty that eliminated South Africa in Wellington last week. Cooper is at 50% (4/8) Berrick Barnes 80% (4/5) and Kurtley Beale 0/1.

Defence

The Blacks and Wallabies have missed an average of 11 tackles per World Cup Test, the former missing one tackle in every 7.1 attempts, while the latter is at one in 9.3.

Errors

To underline just how evenly matched these sides are, they have both been excellent at retaining the ball through phases, with both having the among the best records in terms of lost possessions/turnovers per game. With the breakdown set to be a key facet of play, it is interesting to note that neither side has been particularly vulnerable here, the Blacks averaging 1.8 and Wallabies 2.4 turnovers per match.

Given the threat both pose from turnover ball, a single pilfer from the likes of McCaw or David Pocock could be decisive to the outcome. Australia have had better discipline at ruck time, conceding four penalties on average, but how both teams fare here will lean largely on referee Craig Joubert’s management of the breakdown. We’ll discuss the South African shortly.

Set pieces

Testament to their preference to keep the ball alive, neither side sets many lineouts. Indeed they rank among the lowest teams in this regard. At scrum time, the Blacks getting penalised more, on average, on the opposition’s feed.

The ref

Joubert has been excellent to date, displaying none of the pedantic traits of some of his colleagues on the elite panel, and also certainly not of Bryce Lawrence’s laissez faire approach, particularly to managing the breakdown. Statistics reveal that is unlikely to be stricter in one facet of play over another, although he does rank fourth for ruck penalties.

By Ryan Vrede, in Auckland.

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